By Alexander Goh

Alexander is a sophomore at Yale-NUS and an Apprentice at Skillseed. He’s interested in learning how to create ground-up sustainable change. He also likes corgis.

Cover Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels

Picture this: you’re in a design thinking training session. Your trainer has just gone through a dazzling deck of slides, explaining her approach to problem solving. She’s done her job well; you’ve grasped the concept she’s presented thus far. Finally, she reaches a slide that exclaims: “Now, it’s your turn!”

A slight smile tugs at the corner of your mouth! You’re eager to apply your newly-gained knowledge to something simple.  Bring it on, you think.

Your trainer looks you in the eye and says: “I want you to think about how we can solve the issue of climate change.”

You’re shocked. Climate change is a huge, complicated issue for a myriad of complex reasons. Academics, politicians and community leaders have tried to tackle the problem in their respective contexts for years with limited success. It’s an issue with no clear solution.

In other words: it’s a wicked problem.

What are Wicked Problems?

Coined by design theorists Rittel and Webber, the term wicked problems refer to issues which “are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision-makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications of the whole system are thoroughly confusing”. Originally used in a policy planning context, these wicked problems describe issues which are ambiguous and involve numerous stakeholders with different perspectives.

Due to their complexity, issues such as discrimination, socioeconomic inequality and climate change are often though thought of as wicked problems. As such, trainers tend not to use them in their training sessions. The logic behind this choice is simple: if decades of consideration have failed to generate a simple outcome to these issues, why do we expect training attendees to solve this problem in the next ten minutes?

It’s a fair question. Despite being seemingly counter-intuitive, Skillseed has found that instructing its training attendees to tackle wicked problems allow for motivated and practical design thinking/problem solving.

It motivates your attendees

Climate change is a complicated, perplexing issue. But it also threatens the long-term survival of the human race, and we have little choice but to work towards tackling it. Climate advocates, activists and scientists all over the globe are racing to generate legislative, economic and technological proposals to stave off the impending threat of climate change.  The lesson we can take away from this is that people become motivated when they’re working on real, pressing and urgent problems. We have observed that the preceding statement holds true even when people are simply ideating. The larger the stakes, the more invested and motivated you are in trying to solve them.

Quite naturally, we’ve seen time and time again that a room of excited and motivated participants are more likely to understand and remember various aspects of our design thinking frameworks. Employing real problems in your training thus creates a richer, more memorable experience for your attendees.

It demands the best from your attendees and yourself

As trainers, we are invested in ensuring that our attendees get the most out of our sessions. We want them to be completely engaged in our subject matter, and we want them to wholly imbibe the design thinking tools we’ve shared with them. As mentioned before, employing real problems in your design thinking course could lead to an engaged and motivated body of attendees.

However, choosing to employ wicked problems in your design thinking training requires an inordinate amount of trust in your attendees, as well as yourself.

You have to trust that your attendees are intelligent and discerning enough to generate productive approaches to the problems they are presented with. This confidence in your attendees comes with time – after seven years of practitioner experience, we have realized that everyone tends to be smarter than we give them credit for. If you ask an attendee to deliver a solution to a complex issue, we have noticed that more often than not, they will step up to the plate. People will impress you.

It’s natural, however, to possess the lingering fear that your attendees would be completely lost.. And that’s fine! The Skillseed approach to training is that each session is an experiment of sorts, in which we are allowed to fail. What’s important is that in the wake of said failure, we learn, we tweak our training and consequently, we improve. If your attendees fail to grasp the meaning behind utilizing wicked problem scenarios, the onus is on us as trainers to discover why and cogitate on how might we improve that portion.

Our team is thus constantly refining and improving our work so that we can maximise the impact we have on our participants.

It might just help change the world

Instead of applying your design thinking framework to a mundane hypothetical issue, participants are afforded the opportunity to contemplate a real wicked problem. Consequently, they might just generate real solutions.

We know it’s a long shot, but hear us out: what if your participants generate an entirely plausible solution? Your training session would then have sparked the next great idea, which would be an unexpected but undeniably amazing benefit of using wicked problems during training.

As a matter of fact, our team tends to assign climate change-related scenarios to our participants in the hope that one of them might generate a brilliant idea to combat the scourge of anthropogenic climate change. 

At Skillseed, a few of our members are deeply involved in climate change advocacy. As such, being exposed to our participants’ ideas on tackling climate change through design thinking could provide us (and every other participant ) with valuable insight and inspiration for real-life application in the partner organizations we collaborate with, or serve.

Incorporating the wicked problem of climate change into our training sessions is but one way which Skillseed has attempted to tackle this pernicious predicament. From our sustainability-focused experiential learning programs to local urban sustainability walkshops, we do our best to battle the scourge of climate change. Find out more about us here.